Context is King

Friday Prosecco was flavoured with Pokemon Go! last night. Now I have to admit we’ve not really experienced Pokemon Go! in our household since my little one ran into the sea with his i-Pod in his pocket a week before it was released – we’ve kind of missed the craze, but I’ve read all about it in Forbes and The Guardian and The Telegraph. And last night, I happened upon a tweet from Carl Hendrick showing a list of writing tasks linked to Pokemon Go! with the horrified message “this kind of stuff should be eradicated from our classrooms!” I like Carl – he reminds me of gin. We get along well and can spar without rancour, so I piled in. And it went on for several hours. The thing is, I couldn’t really see the problem.

Personally I wouldn’t choose that as a context for learning. We all bring our values into our teaching. My fundamental belief is that education is there to create a better world. And by better, I mean a more moral, more kind, more thoughtful world, full of wise people. It underpins all my choices and decisions when it comes to teaching. The texts I choose to teach, the writing and speaking tasks I choose to set are often underpinned by this belief. Kids are bombarded with a diet of dilemma in which they learn, in the words of the International Baccalaureate, “that other people, with their differences, can also be right,” and through which they genuinely have to grapple with multiple perspectives and views.

Other people firmly believe in the importance of teaching children a ‘canon’ and others fix their sights on skills, developed through engaging contexts. Good luck to them all. So I wouldn’t choose Pokemon as a ‘topic’ unless I could think of a good dilemma/problem to drive it. Something about global capitalism, or obesity or the disconnect between the real and imagined worlds… You get me?

But I defended this teacher’s choices nonetheless because we had so little information on which to make such a judgement. What if the writing tasks led to beautiful, well structured writing and that was the objective? I mean, if the subject matter is good enough for Forbes, The Guardian and The Telegraph, who are we to judge? What if it was put together specifically for reluctant writers, say in primary school, who would more than likely be asked to do similar tasks in their SATs tests? We don’t know. In so many cases, context is king, but the outcome is the kingdom.

Martin Robinson, who again, I have huge respect for, joined the discussion suggesting that instead, the context could have been the Oresteia plays by Aeschylus. Leaving aside the time it would take to read the three plays with children, you have to question the content. Spurned sexual advances leading to a curse; adultery, revenge, murder, bare breastedness…perfect for the end of Year 6 performance, no? No. Not really. Even the myth of Perseus is fraught with some difficulty when Zeus appears to the princess Danae as a golden shower and impregnates her. I’ve had to do a fair bit of glossing over in my time. But this set of plays, written with an adult audience in mind, is not suitable material for children in Key Stages 2 and 3. Nor is the underage sex romp Romeo and Juliet in my opinion. That’s not to say we can shy away from difficult material, but there are plenty of texts that explore these issues with a child/young adult audience in mind. Fiction has a wonderful capacity to distance and protect children so they can view these things from a safe position of dislocation. But let’s not pretend this is the reason we choose the ancients – we do that to prove we’re being academically rigorous. Nothing more.

We have to be careful that we don’t blindly elevate the old over the new. That we don’t leap in to judge other’s choices based on our own preferences. You can be writing about slugs and have high quality work – the challenge and level of expectation come through the process and the outcome – what you’re prepared to accept as good enough. The extended vocabulary, explanations and knowledge you draw out of the pupils as they craft and draft their writing. That’s the work. That’s the craft of teaching.

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Tip: Rules Don’t Exist So You Can Look Big.

There were three pathways leading to my last school. One was up a steep, narrow tarmac driveway where all the cars came up, with little room at the side for children to walk. The other two were bridlepaths – one from the fields and one coming up through woodland. Both were muddy and most children arrived via one or the other. A few years ago the school ruled that only brogues or loafers were suitable for school. Trainers or any kind of shoe that might have a decent tread on them were banned. So children came in slipping and sliding on the mud. They didn’t look any smarter – mud is mud whatever lies underneath it. But they were colder and less safe. Parents, of course, were not impressed. And as far as I know the policy hasn’t changed judging from the furious conversations taking place in the Co-op between frustrated mothers this week.

It seems that “not all shoes are born equal” is an obsession spreading across the country and that any consideration of cost or appropriateness in terms of distance walked is out of the window in a race in which heads seem to care only about who is the toughest. It would be easy to laugh at them. But last year, one school in Bradford was inspected on the morning of the only day in the whole year where heavy snow had fallen and was still falling. The lead inspector turned up in a puffa jacket and trainers. But in his report he wrote “The correct footwear is not worn by many pupils in the secondary phase.” So appalled was he that he even put it down as one of the headline points on the first page of the report. Correct footwear? Correct for the weather? Does Ofsted set uniform expectations now? What about his own footwear?

The tone for the crackdown on uniform in recent years has come from Ofsted. Michael Wilshaw frequently spoke out in favour of rigid uniform policy, in one case, defending a Head who had sent 150 pupils home for breach of uniform.

“What she was doing was reinforcing to her pupils and to their parents that all successful organisations require rules and that if children, especially children who lack structure and discipline at home, are to succeed in school and in work they have to respect them. It was, in essence, a lesson in how to be employable.”

Let’s leave the patronising “poor people have no structure and therefore we have to impose spurious rules on them to teach them discipline” nonsense aside for a moment. Successful organisations do indeed have rules. They are usually there to ensure one of two aims:

  1. The safety of staff and visitors
  2. Productivity

Given that the business of a school is delivering a high quality education, it is difficult to see how its core purpose is met by denying children access to learning. And if the uniform rules compromise safety – like being able to stand up on a snowy day – they are clearly mad. It is one key area in which Wilshaw and many others misunderstand the purpose of workplace rules and practices.

We are constantly told that children need to learn to comply with rules in order to succeed in the real world. That they ought to get used to the fact that they will be expected to wear uniform and comply. But really? How many jobs really exist where you have a uniform? Not that many to be honest. In most workplaces the onus is on staff to be presentable and appropriately dressed. This is not as easy as it sounds. Dressing appropriately requires being able to make choices from a selection of clothing. Dressing without revealing too much. Dressing so you can perform the tasks you do. Dressing so that you won’t be too hot or too cold. All these things require you to choose. To decide. How does removing the experience of choosing prepare children for life in which they will have to make responsible choices? Does dressing them like little office clones, while completely disregarding the fact that they, unlike us, actually have to walk to school through weather, really prepare them for the world of work? No. It really doesn’t. Wouldn’t it simply be better to have a policy that asked children to dress appropriately for the day ahead and a pastoral system that helped to support those choices?

The madness in some schools has passed on to imposing dress codes on staff. In one school I know, the PE staff have to don smart jackets over their PE kits when they walk down the corridor. I know. Read that sentence again and weep/laugh/whatever. There’s a head with vision! And elsewhere, out of English education, dress codes are getting more relaxed as employers become more concerned with what staff do rather than how they look. My son works in a swanky office wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Everyone he works with does the same. I work all over the world with well behaved children who don’t wear uniform at all. They come to school dressed for comfort, because they find they learn more effectively when they are not being strangled by a tie or forced to sit in a hot room in a blazer. In many countries around the world, children just don’t wear uniforms and it’s no big deal. Even in state run Chinese schools, children wear tracksuits and trainers to school. The word is not compliance here. It’s congruence. Are the clothes congruent with the environment you are in and the tasks you have to complete? If you are a builder when you grow up, you’ll wear steel capped boots, not ballet shoes. But if you’re a ballet dancer…

When we say that uniform is necessary to ‘teach’ children to obey rules, we fall prey to assuming that rules exist in order to control people. They don’t. At least, they don’t in humane and successful environments. They exist in most cases to protect people. There is nothing protective about draconian uniform rules. In fact, turning children away at the door exposes them to risk. There is no evidence that smart uniform has anything to do with academic performance. So why do it? Because you can? And what does that say about you? Keeping children away from school, alienating their parents and imposing a nonsense policy on the weak because you want to show you are strong? That is nothing but folly.